“Innovation is the result of critical and creative thinking and the conversion of new ideas into valued outcomes.” — U.S. Army Operating Concept, 2020-2040: Win in a Complex World
In preparing to write this column, I thought broadly about the role that technological innovation has played in changing the nature of warfare over the years: robotics, night vision technology, air mobility, the internal combustion engine, GPS, radar, the internet, the machine gun, the chitosan bandage, freeze-drying technology (both food and blood), and even duct tape.
I could go on and on, but my point here is that continued innovation — in forms both large and small — has improved the lives of our Soldiers and contributed immeasurably to their success on the battlefield, and will be critical to modernizing the force. Not only that, but those innovations have also created countless jobs and helped create untold wealth.
Recently, I have endeavored to reach out to traditionally non-defense small businesses that have never worked with the government but have great ideas and perhaps revolutionary innovations that could be of some benefit to the Army. In order to maximize the Army’s reach to industry, in 2014, while working in private industry, I created the Innovator’s Corner, a popular engagement opportunity at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, and more recently at AUSA’s Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. At this month’s AUSA Annual Meeting, the Innovator’s Corner will once again showcase individuals and small companies with unique products or services that can meet the needs of the Soldier.
A catalyst for new tech
I have long recognized that the Army must enhance engagements with the entrepreneur-funded community, small businesses and other nontraditional defense partners by: 1) understanding the spectrum of technologies being developed commercially that may benefit the Army; 2) integrating nontraditional innovators into the Army’s research and development ecosystem; and 3) providing mentorship and expertise to accelerate, mature and transition technologies of interest to the Army.
Our office has been rapidly developing and implementing new, innovative and exciting opportunities to work deliberately with small, nontraditional Army partners, with a specific focus on streamlining or even eliminating cumbersome administrative barriers for Army engagement, developing mechanisms to work with the Army laboratories and test centers, and fostering transition to the Army Program Executive Offices or organic industrial base. Through these efforts, the Army can:
• Provide seed capital to accelerate technology maturation.
• Provide access to collaborative research space at Army Open Campus locations across the country.
• Facilitate partnership opportunities with Army laboratories and test centers.
• Provide mentorship to transition technologies back to the government.
These innovative activities coalesce the collective expertise of entrepreneurs, technologists and warfighters, all with a vision for making an impact on the defense of our nation.
The first instantiation of this new concept is the Expeditionary Technology Search, or xTechSearch, launched in June as a catalyst for the Army to engage with this promising business sector, driving American innovation for Army challenges and spurring economic growth. Aimed at attracting game-changing innovation, xTechSearch expands our sources beyond the traditional defense industrial base and provides access for pitching novel technology solutions directly to Army leadership.
Having come from industry and understanding the challenges associated with entering “the process,” I know firsthand that the Army must proactively and aggressively engage with innovators to see what new ideas, concepts, systems and subsystem components they can bring to the table. The next generation of enabling technologies required to achieve our modernization priorities may not currently exist — or they may, and not be apparent to the Army.
A four-phase competition, xTechSearch offers up to $1.95 million in prizes to discover innovative technology that will support the Army’s modernization priorities: long-range precision fires, Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the Army network, air and missile defense, and Soldier lethality.
Concept, pitches, proof
Phase I: The concept white paper contest is where eligible contestants describe their novel technology concept and outline its integration with one of the Army’s modernization priorities. This phase was completed in July, and the response was encouraging. We accepted 349 white papers, with 129 related to Soldier lethality; 25 addressing air and missile defense; 80 regarding the Army network; 39 for Future Vertical Lift; 51 related to the Next Generation Combat Vehicle; and 17 for long-range precision fires. In the category of “other,” eight papers were submitted that did not relate directly to a specified modernization priority. They may still be of value, offering a capability heretofore not militarily considered. Of the entrants, 125 winners received $1,000 each and an invitation to participate in Phase II.
Phase II: As many as 125 selected contestants will have the chance to compete in the xTechSearch technology pitches. Each contestant will complete an in-person technology pitch to a panel of Army experts and judges at select locations across the United States. The final number of Phase II winners had not been determined as of this writing, but up to 25 winners will receive $5,000 each and an invitation to participate in Phase III.
Phase III: The xTechSearch semifinalists, as many as 25, will be featured at the Innovator’s Corner during AUSA’s 2018 Annual Meeting and Exposition, to be held Oct. 8-10 in Washington, with up to 12 winners receiving $125,000, six months to develop a proof of concept, and an invitation to participate in Phase IV.
Phase IV: In the xTechSearch Capstone Demonstration, up to 12 selected finalists will demonstrate the proof of concept for their technology solutions to DOD, government and industry leadership to determine the winner of the $200,000 prize. If the winner does not have or understand how to establish a relationship with the government and Army, they will be shepherded through the process to ensure our access to them.
The xTechSearch is a new way to link innovators directly with Army labs, with a focus on lowering the entrance barriers and spurring innovation. I look forward to sharing the results of the competition with you.
Private sector innovation is critical to the Army’s future and an important part of our strategy to provide the right capability to the Soldier at the right time. During my tenure, we will look everywhere for opportunities to accelerate innovation and deliver advanced technologies that will enable Soldiers to win our nation’s wars and come home safely.